Bearskin by Maurice Sendak, from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“One has to assume that every man is a thinking reed and a noble nature, even if only part-time,” Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt in their poignant correspondence about good, evil, and human nature. Looking back on ten years of Brain Pickings and the ten most important things I learned in this decade of reading, writing, and living, I not only agree with McCarthy wholeheartedly, but would raise her and insist that we must assume a basic human goodness in everyone, as an existential imperative. And yet evil undeniably exists. So how do we reconcile these parallel truths and continue to live with radiance not only undimmed by the existence of darkness but defiantly intent on increasing the world’s store of light?
That’s what the Nobel-winning Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940–January 28, 1996) explored when he faced the Williams College graduating class of 1984. A century after his compatriot Dostoyevsky made his case for why there are no people — a century that had seen two world wars and Russia’s descent into a communist dictatorship — Brodsky considers evil and its most powerful antidote. The speech, eventually included in the 1987 Brodsky anthology Less Than One: Selected Essays (public library), has only swelled in timeliness in the decades since, as we watch evil attempt to grab power and we strain every nasty nerve to counter it.
Brodsky addresses the next generation:
No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.
In a sentiment informed in large part by his longing for a counterpoint to the dictatorial communist groupthink that had consumed his homeland, as it had mine, Brodsky adds:
The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin — not even by a minority.
Brodsky believes the most robust mode of resistance to evil is what he irreverently refers to as “the famous business of turning the other cheek” — those verses from the Sermon on the Mount, which influenced the three titans of nonviolence: Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, who discussed these principles in their fantastic forgotten correspondence about violence and human nature, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who built upon them his ethic of love and nonviolent resistance. In a passage of acute timeliness today, Brodsky considers why these timeless tenets of unrelenting goodwill have fallen out of favor in the modern world:
The fact that the world today is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this concept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons for its unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required for this concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy. This is precisely what 86 percent of the globe lacks. Second, the common sense that tells a victim that his only gain in turning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields, at best, a moral victory, i.e., quite immaterial. The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.
In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas onagency and victimhood, and one which Brodsky would expand upon four years later in what remains the greatest commencement address of all time, he adds:
The moral victory itself may not be so moral after all, not only because suffering often has a narcissistic aspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior, that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.
(Or, as the case has been in the overwhelming majority of human history, when one man starts to think that he is better than one woman — or, even more alarmingly, than the whole of womankind.)…